Eagle Eyes

Newsletter 35 (27 March 2017)

Forty or so years ago seeing a Buzzard used to be a special thrill, only to be experienced in mountainous areas of Britain, but now these birds are ubiquitous. I see them frequently flying over my home, two miles from Oxford city centre. Even more common are Red Kites from the Chilterns, and I’ve seen Kestrels, Sparrowhawks and a Hobby (perhaps) in the sky over this suburban terrain. A couple of years ago I found a dead Sparrowhawk, probably the one I’d noticed several times hunched in a wintry bush on a slip-road from the A420. She had flown into a bus stop; her orange eyes were absolutely furious. I could think of nothing better to do than to put the corpse reverentially in a litter bin.

   At the end of this winter, I kept noticing Buzzards on the ground. One in particular I saw a number of times: in a muddy field between the care home and Farmoor (which is neither a moor nor far away); this was, I like to think, an old Buzzard eating worms. Once riding by on my bicycle, I met its angry glare just over the hedge (or perhaps I am imagining this).

   Buzzards are much smaller than the only eagle found in Britain. Golden Eagles are so huge and impressive, I’m told that a sighting could leave one in no doubt. Though I lived for twenty-four years in Scotland, making many forays into the mountains, I never saw one.

   Exploring Romanesque churches in Lucca last week, I came across plenty of eagles, but these were emblems of St John the Evangelist. St John’s eagle, the lion of St Mark, the angel (or man) of St Matthew, and the ox of St Luke, form a tetrad to be seen everywhere in Italy, inside and outside places of worship, in sculpture, mosaic, painting of all kinds, and stained glass. And everywhere an eagle with its wings spread decorates lecterns in all but the simplest churches.

   So what was the origin of these symbolic associations? I made enquiries, and scarcely surprisingly, I find that the answer is in links between the Old and New Testaments. The texts are as follows: Ezekiel 1: 4–14; Ezekiel 10: 1–22, and Revelation 4: 5–11. Here is some of the graphic detail from Revelation:

And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices… And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.

In the second century St Irenaeus of Lyon associates these cherubim with the four Evangelists. Keen to establish the four gospels as canonical, he argues that four is the proper and natural number (there being four zones of the world, and four principal winds, along with many other examples of quadriformity in God’s works). Some two centuries later, St Augustine of Hippo and St Jerome repeated the idea that the cherubim stood for the evangelists. The three theologians distribute the creatures quite arbitrarily and differently amongst the four gospellers, which I would like to offer, quite illegitimately, as an explanation as to why I can never remember which one is which. Medieval science thought the eagle was the only animal capable of looking directly into the sun, a gift that seemed to link it to John. The current ‘modern’ allocation follows St Jerome.

   Of course eagles have been symbols of power both before and after these ingenious Biblical commentators. Images of the bird had a special status in Imperial Rome. The double-headed eagle of the Byzantine Empire, looking both to the East and the West, has been borrowed by other imperial powers: the Holy Roman Empire; Spain; Russia. Napoleon’s armies carried an Imperial Eagle as their standard. An eagle above a swastika was the symbol of the Nazi Party. The Bald Eagle on the Great Seal of the United States, which finds its way onto coins and many other items of national paraphernalia, was intended to refer to Imperial Rome while depicting an eagle found only in North America. Many other countries use the eagle as part of their flag or as a national emblem: too many to enumerate.    Heraldic eagles are everywhere. While sitting on the bus and wondering how to bring this essay to an end, I saw one I’d not noticed before: Barclays. In 1728 the emergent bank moved to Lombard Street, under the sign of the Black Spread Eagle, from which time onwards an eagle has been the symbol of the bank. In the 1930s an application for a Grant of Arms was successful, and in 1970 ‘Barclays blue’ became the company’s official colour. The current (rather bland) logo dates from 2004.